Scary things happen in Starkville

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow rushes in the second quarter against Mississippi State in Starkville on Oct. 24, 2009. [Tricia Coyne/The Gainesville Sun]

It has been awhile since any of us have been to Starkville, Mississippi, but I don’t remember any proliferation of black cats or broken mirrors or ladders begging to be walked under.

There are no subdivisions built over cemeteries (cue Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist — “You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you?! YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEADSTONES! WHY?! WHY?”)

Sorry, I got a little carried away there. But there are no real signs that there is anything spooky going on in Starkville.

Except when Florida’s football team plays a game there.

All week, this has been called the Mullen Bowl. But if you have been following Florida football for longer than a week, you get the willies when you think about the things that happened there.

This isn’t about Dan Mullen returning to Mississippi State and their “Dan Who?” T-shirts.

It’s about Florida returning to play Mississippi State.

A bit of ancient history first. The Gators rarely played in Starkville prior to the mid-1980s. They were only there five times before 1985, playing more games in the state of Florida, including three in a row in Gainesville on two different occasions.

In fact, through 1991 the two teams played more games in the nicer Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi (12) than in Starkville.

But in 1985 and 1986, Florida played twice in Stark-Vegas. The powerful 1985 team won there. The probation-weakened 1986 team did not and ended up losing four straight games in a 6-5 season.

That was the beginning of it, but it got really weird the last four times Florida went there.


You want to know why you never see the mighty Gators on those Thursday night games? Blame Mississippi State.

The Gators went out there in 1992 for a Thursday night game and came home with a 30-6 loss and a resolve never to play on Thursday nights again.

“I inherited that game,” said Jeremy Foley, who was in his first year as athletic director. “It wasn’t so much that we got beat. We got home at 4 a.m. on Friday and we’re talking about education. It was the worst experience.

“Everything was weird. You’re sitting in the hotel all day and there are no games on and no GameDay. It didn’t feel right for us. I didn’t want to do it again.”

In the game, Florida’s offensive line with two freshmen at the tackles struggled all night. Shane Matthews threw five interceptions and was sacked five times.

“It was close for awhile,” Matthews said. “It was a big deal for me being from Mississippi and it was the only time I got to go back. Obviously, it wasn’t the outcome I wanted.

“We just ran into a buzzsaw. And we weren’t very good, honestly.”

Want a spooky stat? After this game, Florida was 1-2. It was the only time a Steve Spurrier Florida team was ever under .500 during his 12 years at the school. Boo!


The next time Florida went to Starkville, eight years had passed. Florida was ranked third in the country and was expected to roll. But the Gators played another one of those inexplicably poor games, especially on defense.

The Gators lost 47-35. Spurrier was fuming.

“Mississippi State oughta be ashamed tearing down the goalposts after beating this team,” he said.

In the melee on the field, a Florida trainer was injured.

But here’s the scary part of it.

Down eight late in the game, Florida was facing third-and-Tupelo. Spurrier had Rex Grossman run out of the end zone for a safety. He thought it would help field position punting from the 20 instead of the 2-yard line. Except, of course, it went from a one-score game to a two-score game.

And during the game, he also punted on a third-and-forever.

He said he was sick of watching the offense.

“I was sick of watching our defense, too,” Spurrier said Thursday.

The postscript is that Florida won the SEC that year.

“I remember Jackie Sherrill coming on the bus and saying they’d maybe see us in Atlanta,” Spurrier said. “I told him I wasn’t worried about Atlanta, I was worried about LSU the next week.

“We went to Atlanta and they didn’t. We went one way and they went the other. We had a rah-rah meeting and that’s when ‘I Hope You Dance’ was born.”

The Lee Ann Womack song became the theme of the rest of the year.

On top of that, Florida got revenge the next year in Gainesville 52-0. As the teams walked off the field, the scoreboard flashed, “Who Shut The Dogs Out”, an homage to the popular song of the day.

“That last (touchdown) was for the ball boy,” Spurrier said.


Ron Zook was not a popular choice to succeed Spurrier at Florida and was never accepted by a chunk of the fan base. So he started the 2004 season on the hot seat and it only got warmer with tough losses at Tennessee by two points and at home against LSU by three.

On top of that, the Gators had lost their bye week because of Hurricane Frances and played Middle Tennessee the week before they traveled to Starkville.

Mississippi State had lost to Maine earlier in the season.


But the Bulldogs played inspired football and Florida could not stop the running attack. Jerious Norwood’s 37-yard touchdown with 44 seconds to play won the game and the goalposts came down again.

Zook had confided to friends that he feared the lost bye week would hit his team at some point. It did.

Scary factor — Two days later, the Zooker was fired effective at the end of the season.


Timmy Tebow had a lot of great games at Florida. He won a Heisman Trophy and was part of two national championships. But he had a really bad night in — of course — Starkville.

Even though Florida won the game.

Tebow started strong with a 26-yard touchdown run to give Florida the lead. But with the Gators driving for a score up 13-3, Tebow threw a pick at the goal line that Johnthan Banks returned 100 yards for a touchdown.

And then, late in the game, Banks picked off another Tebow pass and ran it back 20 yards for a touchdown.

Florida won 29-19. After the game, for the only time in his career, Tebow passed on meeting with the media saying he wanted to visit with Mullen. Whether that’s why or not, only Tim knows.

“He was not pleased, but he won it, so he didn’t get poopy pants about it,” Mullen said this week. “He just won the game. We lost. Which one would you rather be?”

Tebow’s stats for the game — 12-of-22 passing for 127 yards and no TDs. He did rush for 88 yards.

But if Starkville can make Tebow ordinary, maybe it is built on an ancient Indian burial ground.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at And follow at


  1. Well written, as usual, Pat. There have been some nightmare games in Starkville for sure. I’ve always thought part of the challenge is getting there, no easy travel task, then having the team in a place without anything to do (Starkville or Columbus?). I believe this current Florida team lacks the star-crossed status of a likely upset victim and instead has an underdog, chip on the shoulder mindset. And that MSU is hyperventilating over this match-up that the Bulldogs are much more likely to make unforced errors than the Gators. My daughter and devoted Gator days you gripe too often about being in places to see our beloved Florida teams, which would be a dream job for almost all the rest of us, but going to Columbus and Starkville likely isn’t a reporter’s best thought.

  2. It has been my impression that when MSU is facing the Gators in Starkville, the Bulldogs play with an inspiration that the Gators have not matched. Maybe spending the day in an out-of-the-way place has something to do with it, but it strikes me as more likely that MSU regarded this as a big game whereas UF saw it as a run-of-the-mill contest. This time around, the Bulldogs are ranked and the Gators are the underdogs. That should change some of the dynamics. The fact that this is Mullen’s return may be an even more important dynamic, however. Still, if the Gators can match the physicality of the Bulldogs, it should be a close game.

  3. I think one of the reasons for the above is that Florida has often gone into Starkville in the past thinking they could just throw their helmets out there and win the game easily and MSU was fired up to play them. That will not be the case going into this game. MSU is favored by over a TD and no one is expecting Florida to win the game. A different attitude going into the game should, hopefully, bring a better result for the Gators during the game. I believe it does, if they can limit MSU running the ball and force them, like Kentucky, to go to the pass more and force them into turnovers. Special teams could make a difference for Florida as well. Gators pull off an upset and the LSU game gets real big in The Swamp next week. Fingers crossed.

  4. ”…he (Spurrier) also punted on a third-and-forever.” -Dooley.
    That was the strangest thing I think I’d ever seen, at the time. The State ‘D’ didn’t know what to do. They all thought it was a strange ”trick play.” I, STILL, remember where I was at that night, ”The Dugout.”
    I never was really ”into” that bar again. But tonight’s is a NEW STORY LINE: the day when the Gators send those damn cowbells (”Eat MOR CHIKEN!”), and their ringing fans, back out in the fields. Where they really belong. GO GATORS!

  5. I’m a fan of Dooley, but sometimes he makes the drama the focus and other times the reality.

    For instance, when we talk about Kentucky streaks, it’s irrelevent because none of the previous wins are by the current team, but when it comes to Starkville, “scary things happen”.

    At the end of the day wins and losses are about talent, preparation, health, coaching and attitude. A.combination of those factors, some of which are variable on a given day, for each team, produces a winner and a loser.

  6. And yet, there are no evil spirits, no ‘oogly booglies,” and no need to be led out by a priest to perform an exorcism before the game. This game will be won by the team that has prepared better, will execute their game plan better and not make mistakes, and wants to win the game more. All of the examples above are of teams that were not prepared and/or over confident when playing a team that prepared better and wanted to win the game more than Florida. And that, again, will be the key tonight. If Florida plays MSU with the want to they played Kentucky, and vice versa, it’s gonna be a long night. About the execution of our offense, well, I’m all for it! (cue bad John McKay quote) It’s time to find out if Florida really wants to win football games.

  7. According to “A Fanatics Guide to SEC Football,” one of the first bulldogs used as the mascot “Bully” in 1935 was given free reign on the campus and was given treats by the MSU students. Unfortunately, he was hit by a bus and killed. He was buried under the MSU bench at the 50-yard line.

    So there’s that, if you’re looking for a “Poltergeist” tie-in.